Fox News' Tucker Carlson tried to claim vindication on Wednesday night for his claim that the National Security Agency has been breaking the law in a politically motivated effort to silence him. In reality, his allegations look increasingly shaky.
The saga began last week, on June 28, when Carlson alleged on his primetime show that the NSA was "monitoring our electronic communications and is planning to leak them in an attempt to take this show off the air." He said a "whistleblower" had alerted him to this plan and had confirmed details of Carlson's personal emails. There was a lot of skepticism about these claims, but they're hard to confirm one way or the other.
Hours before his show aired this Wednesday, Axios broke a significant development in the story. According to its anonymous sources, Carlson had recently been trying to set up an interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The sources also claimed that the U.S. government learned of these talks, though Axios said it hasn't confirmed that American officials obtained any of Carlson's communications.
After the story broke, Carlson confirmed on air that he had indeed been trying to set up an interview with Putin. Though he used this claim to try and bolster his allegations, it greatly diminished the impact Carlson's initial story carried. As I and others had argued, the most plausible legal way the NSA would have ended up in possession of Carlson's communications would be if he was communicating with a foreigner who was already being legally spied on by the American government; someone with ties to the Kremlin fits the bill perfectly. This reality would be much less scandalous — indeed, it's legal and commonplace — than Carlson's initial claims suggested. (And, to be clear, his communications with the Russian government would indicate no wrongdoing on his part.)
The NSA had responded to Carlson's initial allegation by saying that the host himself had never been targeted by the agency, though not denying that it had obtained his communications through some other route. This statement seemed to hint at the possibility that Carlson's communications were only incidentally collected. But Carlson was apoplectic about the agency's statement, demanding to know whether they had read his emails. He put on a dramatic show about being outraged that they wouldn't tell him, yet now we know he already knew there was a good possibility they had — because he'd been trying to make contact with the Kremlin, a pertinent fact he kept secret.
Why did he hide this crucial detail from his viewers when he first brought up the allegations against the NSA? The omission borders on deception. His outrage was plainly phony.
This Wednesday, he shifted his ground for outrage once again. Now the problem was that he had been "unmasked." "Unmasking" occurs because the intelligence community often obtains identifying details of people who aren't specifically the targets of surveillance, so internal documents conceal their personal information, even their name, for privacy reasons. Recipients of the intelligence reports can specially request to have these names "unmasked" so they can better understand the information, but they are only supposed to do so for legitimate national security reasons.
Of course, precisely because someone's identity is hidden in the "masking" process, no one can be targeted by an unmasking request. The whole point is that one asks for an unmasking when one doesn't know whose identity is concealed.
But even at this point, there's no solid reason to believe that Carlson was even unmasked. It's not clear that the Axios story is even sourced to government officials, so the sources for the information could've been tied to Carlson or the Kremlin. The only source, it seems, we have reason to believe saw Carlson's name unmasked was the whistleblower themself who contacted Carlson. If what Carlson said is true, this was a genuine national security leak and likely a crime, but it certainly wasn't done to hurt the Fox News host — it was done to help him. It's not even clear Carlson's name was ever "unmasked" at all — his source might've been someone processing the raw intelligence (assuming it exists) before it was masked. If his name was unmasked, it might've been done for a completely legitimate reason — without more details, we just can't know. But Carlson insists we believe he was unmasked for a nefarious reason.
Carlson also claimed that one journalist he knows received a copy of his communications, but he's offered no evidence of this apart from his own testimony. If it's like any of his other claims, it's not likely to live up to the hype. It's possible someone is preparing to inappropriately leak Carlson's communications, but even this circumstance — which lacks any evidence — could fall well short of the agency-wide conspiracy he has alleged.
And finally, Carlson claimed this was all done to humiliate him, intimidate him for being critical of the Biden administration, and somehow force him off the air. Of course, this would be wildly wrong and almost certainly illegal if it happened. But how, exactly, was this going to work? He even said there was "nothing scandalous" in his emails that the NSA supposedly obtained. His stated theory is that the NSA was going to use the fact that he was trying to interview Putin to tarnish him.
"The point, of course, was to paint me as a disloyal American," he claimed.
But this makes no sense. If the emails contain nothing scandalous, then NSA's plan is totally pointless and couldn't conceivably work. Carlson's objective in getting the Putin interview would be to make it public, so how could anyone at the NSA think that publicizing that fact would damage his reputation? And interviewing Putin would be nothing new for Fox News — host Chris Wallace did it in 2018.
None of this really adds up, and it all falls apart the closer you look at it. The only way Carlson's narrative really would hang together is if there really was something damaging in his emails, presumably those that were swept up in collection targeting Russians, and someone at NSA decided to capitalize on that opportunity to go after Carlson.
But even that doesn't have the ring of truth. It seems more plausible that Carlson's emails to the Kremlin were picked up by the NSA through normal means, someone with ties to the agency became aware of this fact, shared the info with Carlson, and in the process, this broader conspiracy narrative was concocted.
Under any reasonable journalistic practice, if a source came to Carlson with these explosive claims about him, he should've directed the individual to speak with reporters on the news side of the outlet to fully vet the claims. Instead, he's taken ownership of a story where he clearly has a conflict of interest and spun a fantastical tale out of it.
But what should we expect? It was, after all, U.S. District Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil who once concluded — citing arguments from Fox News' own lawyers — that Carlson's viewers should know that when he speaks on his prime time show, he "is not 'stating actual facts' about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in 'exaggeration' and 'non-literal commentary.'"